Moderated by Rick Badie
When it comes to the economy, it’s been said that there are two Georgias: the vibrancy of metro Atlanta, then the rest of the state — specifically, rural counties dependent on agriculture and an occasional factory. Today, a College of Charleston assistant professor highlights socioeconomic factors that plague our state, while an executive for a nonprofit writes about depressed regions across the South.
Rural decline concerns us all
By Tammy Ingram
Atlanta may be the largest city in the Deep South, but every Georgian knows that Atlanta — or ‘lanter, as I thought it was called while growing up in South Georgia — is hardly representative of the state, much less the entire region. The metro area is home to more than half the state’s population and most of its best-paying jobs. But if you want an accurate snapshot of the rest of the state, you’ll have to crop out metro Atlanta.
That snapshot isn’t pretty. Rural counties have the highest unemployment rates, lowest incomes,worst high school dropout rates and so on. The poverty rate in rural Georgia is nearly 25 percent, versus 18 percent in urban areas.
This tale of two Georgias is not new. The state has long been divided along a rural-urban axis. But whereas the rural sections of the state once held the balance of political and economic power — thanks to the county unit system, which gave disproportionate weight to rural white votes, and also to the state’s fertile agricultural region, long known as the Black Belt for its reliance on (and exploitation of) African-American farm workers — since the end of World War II, the seat of power has shifted to the densely populated metropolitan area around Atlanta.
Still, Georgia, like much of the South, remains predominantly rural.
What it means to be rural has changed in recent years. Most rural people no longer make their living farming. The consolidation of small family farms into huge agribusinesses has devastated many farm families in places like Seminole County, in the southwest corner of the state.
Social consequences of this shift are dramatic. While a few huge farms are thriving, thanks in part to huge federal subsidies,more than 23 percent of residents live below the poverty line, the high school dropout rate is more than 32 percent (nearly 47 percent for African-American students), and more than 36 percent rely on Medicaid. Few high school graduates go on to college. Rural crime rates rival and sometimes exceed those of metro Atlanta.
Rural out-migration and gerrymandering have compounded these problems by eroding the political influence of rural voters, but so have misguided federal policies that equate rural with agricultural. The countryside may still be dominated by farms, but it is no longer dominated by farmers. Federal farm policies benefit corporate farmers but marginalize the majority of rural Georgians, who work low-wage service sector jobs or scrape by with the help of dwindling government programs.
Problems long associated with urban decline now define much of rural Georgia and dozens of other Deep South counties. Yet for solutions, we must look beyond the simple rural-urban binary that has long defined the state and region. The problems unfolding in Southern rural areas are everybody’s problems. The political and economic implications of rural decline are not limited to the counties where those conditions exist, but instead have consequences for all of us.
Tammy Ingram is an assistant professor at the College of Charleston.
The Crescent South needs our attention
By Andy Brack
There’s a vitality that runs throughout metropolitan Atlanta. Expensive cars are ubiquitous around Lenox Square. Neighborhoods in bedroom communities in Gwinnett and Cobb counties have good schools,libraries and a pretty good quality of life, despite some reminders of the Great Recession and, of course, traffic.
Vivacity, however, is harder to spot in a swath of agricultural Georgia that stretches across the middle of the Peach State, a rural sash of poverty where economic opportunity is tougher to find. The busiest place around might be a convenience store, as is the case in Leary in Calhoun County. Across the street is a full city block that has been abandoned. A couple of empty houses along Depot Street have been painted green or rusted red just to make them look less dilapidated.
Across the South,from Tidewater Virginia through the eastern Carolinas along I-95, through the middle of rural Georgia and Alabama and to the Mississippi Delta, about 4 million people live in economically distressed counties. On a map, the area is crescent-shaped. It has higher rates of poverty, unemployment, single-parent households, chlamydia, obesity and diabetes. It’s easy to see that these areas correlate with another map — that of where enslaved people lived in 1860.
This “Southern Crescent” is a clear remnant of plantation life, a region that has been the soft underbelly of the Deep South for generations. Today, 150 years after the Civil War, it’s time for the Crescent to start receiving the same attention that Appalachia did in the 1960s War on Poverty.
It’s not all doom and gloom in Crescent counties. Lots of people have good lives. Some forward-looking communities have taken extra steps to plan and innovate. In recent years,Vidalia in South Georgia has branded itself as the go-to place for sweet, delicious onions. Prosperity shows throughout the town, but even today, 25 percent of the people in Toombs County live in poverty.
To focus attention on endemic poverty throughout the Crescent counties, the Center for a Better South offers a Web site — SouthernCrescent.org — to showcase life in the region. We hope to bring together nonprofits and foundations to fund research and studies on how to coordinate better and smarter delivery of services to infuse more dynamism in the region. The center encourages the White House to create a special national study commission to recommend federal and state policies to raise living standards and promote opportunity.
This effort may not cost a lot of money. If various state and federal government bureaucracies get out of their comfort zones and work with engaged rural communities, they can figure out ways to create more economic opportunities.
Ride the roads of Crescent counties in Georgia. It’s clear that rural Southerners want more opportunities for their counties. Now is the time to get moving so they don’t get left behind even more.
Andy Brack is president of the Center for a Better South (bettersouth.org) based in Charleston, S.C.